Ague/intermittent fever (malaria)
Powdered cinchona bark/Peruvian Bark (Conchona officinalis L.)
This bulky bark was taken for fevers suffered from mosquito bites, although the correlation between mosquitoes and malaria had not been made yet. Quinine came much later.
Used to induce sweating and to decrease fevers.
VD (syphilis, gonorrhea)
A number of men contracted venereal diseases from contact with native women (which was anticipated!).
Calomel (mercurous chloride)
A laxative, this was considered an “alterative” and administered for syphilis, however, ingestion of mercury caused poisoning over time.
Used for syphilitic lesions.
A botanical given orally, it soothed lesions from gonorrhea.
Pain, sleep inducer
This was used before morphine was discovered; it was given orally, as hypodermic syringes were not invented at the time.
Wounds, abrasions, bites, boils
Various soothing ointments were concocted for these common injuries and annoyances (think of stepping on a cactus while barefoot). Mosquito and flea bites were abundant. Boils were common with soggy and unsanitary conditions.
Unguent basilicon (hog lard, white resin, yellow wax)
Diachylon plaster (oil and litharge-lead monoxide)
Balsam traumaticum or compound benzoin tincture
Zinc sulfate (White Vitriol)/lead acetate (Sugar of Lead) eye wash (“eye water”)
This was very common in the native tribes encountered by the Corps (as well as Corp members) whom Lewis and Clark were able to treat with their compounded solutions.
Jalap, rhubarb, calomel, magnesia, Rush’s pills (jalap and calomel; aka “Thunderclappers”)
Laxatives and more laxatives. These were dispensed copiously for the many GI complaints suffered by the expedition members. In times of diminished food supply, a diet low in fiber or in foods not accustomed to, the expedition members suffered greatly from GI issues, including diarrhea, which would not have been helped by laxatives!
Induced vomiting and sweating, both thought to “cure” the body of a variety of illnesses. Ipecac is no longer recommended for poisonings.
Rhubarb (Rheum or China rhubarb)
Not the culinary plant available in grocery stores today, but a botanical used for purging and as a treatment for diarrhea – multipurpose!
Essence of peppermint
For stomach complaints – still in use today in various forms (tea, oil, etc.).
Other Hazards and Conditions
The expeditioners were also exposed to and experienced some common and not so common hazards and conditions during their journey such as animal attacks (rattlesnakes, wolves, buffaloes, bears), trauma from falls off cliffs or horses, water injuries, rheumatism, frostbite, snowblindness, and accidental gunshot wounds (Lewis was shot in the buttocks while hunting).
Childbirth – Sacagawea delivered her son Pomp during the expedition and was given two rings of rattlesnake to aid in the painful labor.
Other Drugs/Botanicals Carried on the Expedition
Glauber’s Salt (“salts”) - laxative, purgative
Cream of Tartar (potassium bitartrate) – laxative
Tartar emetic (potassium antimony tartrate) – to eliminate noxious substances producing imbalance in the patient
Elixir of Vitriol – sulfuric acid/alcohol/aromatics (usually ginger and cinnamon) –a "tonic" and for stomach disorders
Saltpetre (Nitre) – potassium nitrate – produced sweating
Unguentum Epispastic (blistering plaster) from Cantharides (Spanish Flies) – compounded into a base which produced blisters to eliminate disease-causing toxins
- Dental kit (to extract teeth)
- Penile syringes (lead acetate was injected to sooth the pain of gonorrhea)
- Tourniquet (fortunately did not have to be used)
- Carpenter’s tools for amputations (however, there was nothing to sterilize instruments – this was 80 years into the future)
The Lewis and Clark Expedition was a stupendous achievement made all the more miraculous in that only one man expired on the journey, a testament to the robust health of the travelers and the leaders’ excellent rudimentary diagnosis abilities and often spot-on medical care. A profuse amount of information exists on the expedition in published books, research papers, exhibitions, parks, the internet or TV; however, it wasn’t until 1980 that a well-researched book was published on the medical aspects of the trip:
Chuinard EG. Only One Man Died: The Medical Aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Glendale, CA: Arthur Clark Co; 1980
Two other excellent books followed in 2001 and 2002:
Paton B. Lewis and Clark: Doctors in the Wilderness. Golden, CO; Fulcrum Publishing; 2001
Note: a tribute to Dr. Paton was published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine after his death in 2019.
Peck DJ. Or Perish in the Attempt. Wilderness Medicine in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Helena, MT: Farcountry Press; 2002